Friday, 25 April 2014


By the end of the 1950s, Lady Dixon’s time in Belfast was coming to an end (the ship, not the Commissioner’s wife!). The Minutes reveal (Nov 1959) that “… the Harbour Master had reported that parts of the upper works of the pilot light vessel Lady Dixon, (which is not due for triennial survey until February, 1961) were in a poor state, and that, as it was possible that some of the underparts of the vessel were in similar condition, he had suggested that a thorough inspection of the vessel on station be made by a competent wooden ship surveyor….”.  A report from the Harbour Engineer subsequently reported “…. a certain amount of deterioration of the decking and a small leak on the starboard quarter;  any detailed examination of the vessel would necessitate the removal of a considerable amount of panelling and decking, and suggesting, in the circumstances, that the vessel be dry-docked as soon as is reasonably practicable for the purpose of survey …..”.  It got worse!  In February 1960 the vessel was withdrawn from station and a preliminary survey reported that “The work immediately necessary to make the vessel serviceable for a period of 12 months, i.e., until she is due for triennial survey and overhaul …” was estimated to cost £3,000 (£58,000 today) and take 3 months. The overhaul and work necessary to make the vessel serviceable for a further 3 years would cost at least £20,000 (£390,000 today) and take 4/6 months.
   These costs obviously caused concern and discussions began about whether the pilotage service could be run from a shore station at Carrickfergus (which would require the building of a landing stage and the purchase of two fast motor vessels). After much discussion and detailed estimates of the various options, it was decided (8 March 1960) that Lady Dixon would not be repaired. There was even a suggestion at one stage that the vessel be beached at Carrickfergus to provide accommodation for the pilots, but a building ashore became available.
The final mention was in the minutes of 29 November 1960 when it was agreed that the vessel would be disposed of.  She was advertised in, of all publications, the ‘Yachting World’ and in February 1961 a Belfast businessman, Mr G.A.Lee offered £185 (£2,800 today).  This offer was declined, but when he raised it to £685 (£10,600 today) later that month, his offer was accepted.  That was the end of Lady Dixon’s period in Belfast and within about 12 months she was on her way to a new career as a Pirate Radio Station – which, as we have seen, never got off the ground/water.

Meanwhile, back down on the Medway, Simon is pressing on with the refurbishment. The quaint old stove which he purchased to provide heat downstairs, sorry below deck, (Photo) .....

........ came up very well with a lot of elbow grease (Photo).

The curly silvery trimmings top and bottom and the ash-catcher lids on the sides, are showing their age and no amount of rubbing is going to disguise the corrosion, but he does not want to paint them (Photo).

The next big job is tiling the kitchen floor. This involves a membrane which has to be glued to the deck; then the tiles are glued to the membrane. He has the membrane cut to size and ready to glue (Photo),

 so the tiles should be down this week. After that, now that drier weather is on offer, the main deck will be insulated.

There remains the question of what to do with the old skylight from the kitchen roof, which is in better condition than it looks (Photo).   

Simon is thinking of using it to replace the forward companionway doors, which are not in good shape. One of those port-holes in each door will look good.

Thursday, 17 April 2014


   To help the Belfast Harbour Commissioners come to a decision about buying Cormorant from Dublin, the surveyors they sent down to examine the ship were Messrs James Maxton & Co.  Google told me they are still in business and, more in hope than expectation, I sent off an e-mail asking if they have any records of the survey. The reply was swift but disappointing – their offices were destroyed in a WWII blitz. The firm was also tasked to produce ‘an outline specification and drawing of the adaptions which would be necessary to make the vessel suitable for the pilotage service’.  The blueprints from which I obtained copies must have been drawn up from those Maxton documents and they are labelled ‘Liffey Dockyard’, where the work was done.  Maxtons were also paid ‘200 guineas’ to supervise the work. You may remember the correspondence I found back in October, which debated what allowances the surveyors should receive for travelling from Belfast to Dublin. Those were the Maxton surveyors and they received only ‘normal’ expenses as Dublin was not considered to be ‘abroad’!

     Another little nugget from the minutes enabled me to plot the location of the Lady Dixon during her time on station in Belfast Lough.  All I knew before my visit was that she was stationed ‘off Carrickfergus’ and to me that meant a few hundred yards from shore, warning ships off the Carrickfergus rocks. The only photo we had of the ship on station was taken in the 1950s by Wil Smith (New Zealand) and showed a rather distant shoreline (Photo).

 I thought perhaps the photo had been taken from the Carrickfergus shore. However, in the minutes of June 1942, where the purchase of a lightship was discussed, it was stated that it would be stationed in Belfast Lough ‘mid-way between No1 Buoy, Victoria Channel, and Grey Point’. Well assuming that the location of No1 Buoy has not changed much – 1.5 miles SE of Carrickfergus – and Grey Point is easily found on local maps, it has been possible to estimate (note the word!) where Lady Dixon was moored, and it is right across on the south side of the Lough (Photo), which explains the photo.

    All this was of course very exciting (am I turning into a nerd?) but there was more to come. 
   I continued my trawl through the library of the Belfast Harbour Commissioners, having found plenty of interesting nuggets in the early minute books. In September 1943 “The Chairman intimated that, in accordance with the wishes of the Board, he had asked Lady Dixon, D.B.E., J.P., wife of their esteemed colleague, The Rt. Hon. Sir Thomas J. Dixon, Bart., H.M.L., if she would consent to the pilot lightship “Cormorant” (which name the Board desired to alter) being named after her, and that Lady Dixon had kindly consented”.  Well that settled my question as to whether the ship was named after Sir Thomas’ wife or mother.  It was resolved “That the pilot lightship be named “Lady Dixon”, and that the grateful thanks of the Commissioners be conveyed to Lady Dixon for the honour which she has conferred upon them by allowing the vessel to bear her name”.  Isn’t the language lovely? This is of course the period when the Master of the lightship, Mr A.P. Kennedy, did not know what name to write in the headings of his log pages!

   Things soon became rather routine and repetitive in the Minutes, as they had in the Log Books and not wishing to take undue advantage of the Commissioners’ generosity, I kept the free photocopying down to a minimum and made extensive notes. These tell me that in January 1955, the ship’s repair bills were mounting – well she was 83 years old by this time. Her regular overhaul cost a total of £1,760 (over £57,000 today) although this did include examination and renewal of her mooring. This did not include ‘repairs to the Aga and Esse cookers, the Pilots’ Mess Room heater, any repairs needed underneath, nor the repairs to the boarding platform damaged on 8 December 1954 in a gale’. The last entry in the last Log Book available was on 14 September 1956, but the Minutes continued and included a commendation from the Commissioners to the pilots and crew of the Lady Dixon for the rescue of three occupants of a small yacht which capsized in Belfast Lough on 7 September 1958. The end was fast approaching, but I will deal with that next time.

   The final nugget I found before I left the Commissioners was a big one. There were several photograph albums on the shelves and in one I struck real gold!  Up until then, the only photograph we had of Lady Dixon was Wil Smith’s. In one of the albums I found not one, but three photographs of the ship taken on 21 May 1957. Any doubts I may have had about Wil’s photo being of the Lady Dixon were dispelled because the name is clearly visible on two of the photographs and the planking of the ‘boarding platform’ at the stern can be seen. This platform had caused me doubts because it made the stern look very rectangular – not at all like the ship as she is now (and was underneath the platform). (Photos)


Saturday, 12 April 2014


What a tremendous few days I had in Belfast!  Leaving aside the wonderful hospitality shown to me over there, the research went exceedingly well. I spent the first day in the Public Records Office Northern Ireland (PRONI) and most of the second in the Library of the Belfast Harbour Commissioners.

    At PRONI they produced Masters’ Log Books – four massive volumes covering the time from when Cormorant arrived in Blefast from Dublin (17 July 1943); took over from a small motor vessel called ‘P.S. Edith Williames’ (Pilot Steamer) on 28 July 1943; up  until 1956. The first volume is cloth covered and titled “Log Book  P.S. Edith Williams” (incorrect spelling of Williames); in pen underneath is “and Cormorant”; but Cormorant is scored out and “Lady Dixon” written in. (Photo – this is a photo of the photocopies I had made of the books and the page where the takeover is listed). Subsequent volumes are leather covered and properly inscribed with “P.L.V. Lady Dixon” (Pilot Light Vessel).

A close-up of the page for July 1943 shows the actual entry recording the arrival on station of Cormorant, the lighting of the light; and the testing of the fog-horn (Photo). That would have been popular with the neighbours at half-past midnight!

  The page headings usually showed the vessel’s name, but between 30 September 1943 and 8 October 1943 the headings are blank. I assume this is because, during this period, the name change from Cormorant to Lady Dixon was being organised.

    So I went through 13 years of daily reports by two Masters – J Owens and A.P. Kennedy – who each spent one month aboard before being relieved by the other. Also listed were the names of the pilots on duty and all the vessels which were ‘boarded’ and guided into and out of the harbour. Each year Lady Dixon was relieved on station for a month, presumably to undergo inspection and repairs.

    Also at PRONI there were some accounts and minutes of the Belfast Harbour Commissioners. The accounts revealed that Lady Dixon was valued at £18,307 : 1s ; 9d in 1945. That is over £550,000 in today’s money! The minutes proved rather difficult, being loose papers gathered up with ribbons galore. It took longer to undo the old ribbons than it did to read the various old papers! I ploughed on until closing time.

    The following day proved even more fruitful. I had intended to return to PRONI for more accounts and minutes, but a friend organised a visit to the HQ of the Belfast Harbour Commissioners. There I was given the run of their handsome library, along with coffee and secretarial assistance! They could not have been more helpful. Their versions of minutes and accounts were properly printed and bound, year by year (Photo – a photo of the photocopies they made for me, including the book covers!). 

   What a treasure trove of information these proved to be. In June 1942, repairs to the boiler of the P.S. Edith Williams were deemed to be too expensive in view of the age of the boiler – 42 years. It was suggested that a lightship be procured and used as a combined lightship and pilot station. Apparently Trinity House, London had nothing to sell, but the Commissioners of Irish Lights in Dublin had two on offer. By 30 June the two ships had been inspected and, subject to ‘an examination in graving dock’, the lightship Cormorant was judged to be suitable. She was found to be ‘in very good condition’ and the go ahead was given on 14 July at a price of £1,900 (£62,000 today).  On 28 July approval was given for the conversion costs of £12,500 (£411,000), work to be carried out by the Liffey Dockyard in Dublin as local firms were unable to undertake the work at that time. The conversion required was detailed in the blueprints, copies of which I obtained back in November and which I reported in my posts at that time.

    In June 1943, almost a year later, there is recorded ‘an agreement with Mr John Cooper, Tug Owner, to tow the light vessel “Cormorant” from Dublin to Belfast’ and she duly arrived on 17 July 1943, as I found in the Log Books.
   More nuggets next time.

Thursday, 3 April 2014


Just a couple of small items, finishing touches and odds and ends.  The skylight has been finished off nicely on the outside with metal cladding (Photo).

The inside has been packed, plaster-boarded and plastered. It just remains to add a bit of paint and that’s another project finished (Photo). 

The toughened, double-glazed glass came with integral venetian-type blind. I don’t think it functions when the glass is horizontal, but there is plenty of light coming through and on a hot summer’s day (we wish!) I think Simon will be glad it is not clear glass.

With a few hours to spare, Simon set about the entrance hatch to the forward companionway. This was very rusty and holed in places. Some time ago it was welded up and this week Simon stripped and painted it. It looks much better now, but shows up the door, which needs stripping and varnishing. (Photo)

So I am off to Belfast on Monday to see what the Public Records Office has to offer concerning the Lady Dixon from 1943 to 1956, when she was moored off Carrickfergus in the dual role of lightship and pilot station. Incidentally, I apologise for some careless writing in earlier blogs when I referred to Lady Dixon as the Harbour Master’s wife. The Cormorant was in fact renamed after a Harbour Commissioner’s wife - most probably Lady Edith Dixon, married to Sir Thomas James Dixon, whose names were given to one of Belfast’s best-known parks in 1959. Alternatively, the vessel may have been named after Sir Thomas’s mother, Lady Eliza.